We've heard a lot about craft beer, and how beer is the new wine, and something to be savoured, rather than slugged down. A lot of the credit for bringing new tastes goes to Tallinn's Pudel Baar in Telliskivi, a welcoming place which, with its bare softwood furniture and white walls, brightens up the coldest of winter nights. I also had birthday drinks there with work colleagues in May.
They got into what might be called "a bit of controversy" in early 2013 when Saku, the largest brewery in Estonia, decided to take offence at a jokey sticker placed on the door of Pudel, saying "Saku-Free Zone", which was meant to emphasise the variety of other, they would argue better-tasting, beers that Pudel stocked.
I should admit an interest in all this - James Ramsden, one of Pudel's owners, is a friend of mine. But in any case, the social media contretemps between a giant brewery that didn't need to bother itself and a small but influential bar selling beers from tiny breweries was pretty funny.
With Saku bringing out its latest international-themed flavour of beer, the Japanese-style Saku Tokyo, to replace the French-style Saku Le Mans, it seemed like a good time to run the rule over their new offering, and compare it to an Estonian craft beer that you could, until recently (when they sold the last bottle) buy in Pudel, Valge Laev. You'll just have to trust me when I say that no money has changed hands, and so what follows is my objective view.
So, CONTENDERS... RRRRREADY!
Saku Tokyo is presumably meant to capture the zeitgeist of the sushi bars that are popping up around Tallinn. Estonians may not, historically, like spicy food, but it seems they can't get enough of fish, rice and wasabi. And why not? It's healthy and tasty, although not being my favourite food.
Typically you will get Asahi beer with sushi, and Saku Tokyo claims to aspire to the softer taste of Japanese beer,while still weighing in at a meaty 5.0% alcohol volume.
Pouring it into the glass, I immediately made an error - I had poured at too shallow an angle, and too slowly. I thought the beer would be hoppier than it was, and would give a strong head - but the way I poured it, I couldn't get anything on top of the glass.
Still, drinking it I felt that, if I were given it at a party, I would be happy enough - but there was no bite or distinction to the flavour, just a vagueness. It was odd, as the beer it replaced, Le Mans, was easily the best Saku beer I'd had. It actually tasted like an Alsace lager, with a bit of pleasurable agricultural grittiness in the bottle. Tokyo, whatever the hope to cater to a milder palate, seems like a step back, just when Estonia's largest and most popular brewery was making positive progress.
Valge Laev meets you with a bottle label that seems amateur, as if printed in the '70s. Even the fonts used made me think of those old adverts for Carling Black Label half way through Bullseye on ITV in the UK. But this is a beer from an Estonian microbrewery, and so the home-made feel of the whole thing, very much like garage rock that is actually played in a garage, should add to the sense of authenticity.
When I opened my first bottle of Valge Laev, I must admit I wasn't expecting a lot. Ginger and lemon in a beer could be a truly overpowering mess of too many strong tastes. But the thing is, they've got it right. There's enough fizz and potency for it to carry a strong head - and the first mouthful is truly epic. I was with my visiting aunt when I first had this beer. I told her what a game-changer that first sip had been, and she bought some for herself. It's like a party for the taste-buds; first the lemon brings in a kind of Brussels-night-out sourness, then the ginger comes in for the knockout blow. It's a strong one, so two bottles and I'm already feeling a little tipsy - but it's worth every penny of the high-ish price for the chance to sample these local brewers' excellent work.
Sadly Pudel have sold their last bottle of Valge Laev - but if you want to find out what they have in at the moment, pay them a visit, here's their website.